A NATION WITH A
Ch (LTC) Richard J. Shannon
In 1980 President Jimmy Carter alerted national conscious-
ness and raised some questions when he ordered the national regis-
tration of men on their eighteenth birthdays. Reaction was quick
and critical. Many reasoned that a registration was only the first
step to renewing the draft. Some who opposed a draft did not oppose
a registration. Others opposed even a registration because they
were conscientious objectors. This became an issue when they could
not state on the registration form that they were conscientious
objectors. A small issue, but for them it was very important. The
question of conscientious objectors and selective conscientious
objectors has not been settled in any definitive way. The law of
the land says that males must register at their eighteenth birthday.
This is fair and just. Not to extend that law to consider conscien-
tious objectors and selective conscientious objectors is not fair
I think we need to examine what has been the country's atti-
tude toward conscientious objectors from the time of the Revolu-
tionary War until today. The history of conscription, deferments
and exemptions has been a real can of worms. With this registration,
it is time to ask about selective conscientious objectors.
The Catholic Bishops of the United States in the past
sixteen years have strongly urged the government to respect
conscientious objectors and selective conscientious objectors.
This has not been the Catholic position in the past. Will this
have any influence in changing the law? Is it time to insure
that selective conscientious objectors must be part of our selec-
tive service system? Will we consider a man's motivation for not
serving in the military as well as all the other ways he can be
deferred or exempted from military service?
A few men have resisted the draft registration. Some men
have turned themselves in and stated that they were conscientious
objectors. The Justice Department has prosecuted and sentenced
these men to prison. Hopefully, these few who have been imprisoned
will help bring the point of conscientious objectors and selective
conscientious objectors to the notice of Congress.
Young men turning eighteen years of age need guidance,
counseling and information concerning draft registration law, con-
science and service to the country.
History of the Draft
Draft or conscription has always been a problem in our
country. Men have refused to serve in the United States Army ever
since General George Washington put together his raggedy force.
The call went out for volunteers to enlist for one year. The
response was poor. Congress then passed a draft law but only a
few states responded. During the War of 1812 the same problem
was present. There were few volunteers and no draft.
The first conscription law was passed in 1863 during the
Civil War. States would ask for volunteers and the Federal Gov-
ernment would draft them. Over three million men were enrolled
by the Federal Government, but only 200,000 were inducted or
drafted. Out of every one hundred fifty called to duty, twenty
became draft dodgers. Volunteers, when drafted, could avoid the
draft by paying $300.00 or by finding a substitute. Thirty per-
cent of those enrolled in the draft had legitimate exemptions
because of dependency. Thirty- two percent of the men remaining
were rejected for physical disabilities. Half of those liable for
duty paid the $300.00 for substitutes. However, Congress did allow
conscientious objectors to engage in hospital work.
In 1917 the Selective Service Act was passed and consequently
all men age 21-30 were required to register. Later the requirement
was extended to include all men age 18-45. During World War I the
draft was conducted by means of a lottery system. Of ten million
men who had registered at that time, 687,000 men were drafted. Ul-
timately three million men would be inducted into the military ser-
vices. Amazingly during World War I there were over 335,000 draft
Exemptions were granted to men because of the following
reasons: 1) officers in national military force, state and fed-
eral governments; 2) aliens; 3) ministers and divinity students;
4) pilots and mariners; 5) workers in Federal Government essential
to conduct of war; and 6) certified members of anti-war religious
groups and men with total dependents. Aliens and conscientious
objectors often served in non-combatant capacities.
In 1940 Congress enacted the first draft act in time of
peace. During World War II 36,000,000 men were liable for service.
Twenty million men were examined and one third were rejected, while
ten million were inducted into military service. The Burke -Wads worth
Act provided exemption to men who objected to military service on
religious grounds. Conscientious objectors could be assigned either
to non-combatant service or to civilian jobs.
The draft continued until 1947 when not seeing an immediate
need for a standing army, President Harry S. Truman suspended it.
The lack of volunteers caused its reinstatement again in 1948. With
the beginning of the Korean conflict, over 600,000 veterans were
called back to service. However, one-and-a-half million men of draft
age never put on a uniform. Deferments were many. College students
were deferred as well as farm workers, engineers, teachers, and sci-
entists, and they did not have to serve one day. Only the poor had
no reason not to go to war. Of those deferred, eighty-three percent
or two million men were students.
The draft continued from 1948 on, all through the '50s and
'60s. The numbers of men needed were small until the Vietnam con-
flict. Once more, men looked for ways to be deferred. Colleges
and universities began to fill up. Reserve and National Guard
units were at or over one-hundred-percent strength. In 1965, half
of the men examined were rejected for physical, mental or moral
reasons. In World War I and World War II, only thirty percent were
rejected for these reasons. Again, war became something real only
for the poor who could not go to school or join the Reserves.
The draft ended officially through an Act of Congress on
September 28, 1971. Eligible males, however, were still required
to register. Registration was discontinued on April 1, 1975, by
President Gerald Ford.
Deferments and Exemptions
The history of the draft in our country has been not one
that we can look to with pride. When we look at all the reasons
that have kept men out of service, one must ask the question,
"Why has it been so difficult for conscientious objectors?" Of
the ten million men inducted during World War II, only 37,000
were classified as conscientious objectors. Since 1948, 32.9 mil-
lion men have been registered by the Selective Service. The status
of conscientious objector has been claimed by 20,000.
When I served on active duty from 1967 to 1971, very-
few Reserve or National Guard units served on active duty. Men
used these units to avoid duty. I had a Chaplain's Assistant in
Korea who had a tryout with the Green Bay Packers . This man was
put into the Wisconsin National Guard so he would not be drafted.
The state government of Wisconsin was willing to grant a man
from Kansas a deferment to play football because they liked foot-
ball and wanted the best for their team. Was this fair and just?
He then suffered a knee injury and was cut from the team. Immedi-
ately he was drafted into the United States Army.
While we have witnessed deferments for a variety of reasons,
exemption has been very difficult for the conscientious objector
in the Armed Services. It was not until 1962 that the Department
of Defense officially allowed for the transfer of a man from a
combat unit because he was opposed to combat duty. The Defense
Department also approved the discharge of those opposed to all
military duty. For the first time in United States history, a
conscientious objector, for religious reasons, could apply for
and be granted an Honorable Discharge.
There have always been conscientious objectors in the
United States. People in the Revolutionary War who refused to
serve were required to pay a tax. Pacifists who refused to do
this had their land and possessions seized or they were forced
into the Army.
With the Civil War came conscription and the conscientious
objector had to perform hospital work or pay his way out of the
army. There were provisions for Honorable Discharge as a consci-
entious objector, but those who were granted this status were
often harassed and/or tortured for their beliefs.
During World War I, Congress and the military made the
problem of obedience to conscience very difficult. Non-religious
conscientious objectors and religious objectors not from pacifist
churches were not recognized as conscientious objectors. They
were forced into the military or imprisoned. Only those belonging
to a recognized pacifist cult or religion were exempt under the
Selective Service Act. The military had no discharge policies
regarding conscientious objectors. Under the 1917 Selective Ser-
vice Act, a conscientious objector became technically a soldier
and was expected to do non-combatant work. Those who refused to
do this were either sent to do farm work or reconstruction work,
or they were court-martialed. This could mean a death sentence,
life imprisonment or a lesser sentence. None of the conscientious
objectors was executed, but many died in prison due to the sub-
standard conditions of the prisons.
During World War II, conscientious objectors were not sent
to the military for their hearings. Claims of conscientious ob-
jection were considered by Selective Service authorities. Those
who were classified as conscientious objectors were expected to
serve either as noncombatants in the Armed Service or as workers
in civilian public service camps. Realizing that one was a con-
scientious objector after being inducted into the Armed Services
also provided a difficulty because the War Department provided
no effective remedy to this situation. Many were court-martialed.
Some became noncombatants but this status was liable to change as
needs arose in the units. Others just deserted.
Claiming status as a conscientious objector should not be
associated with the lack of willingness to serve one's country.
A classic example of this concerns the story of one PFC Desmond T.
Doss, who during World War II refused to serve as a combatant due
to his religious beliefs, but nevertheless requested front-line
duty as a medic. While serving in Okinawa during the spring of
1945, Doss helped seventy-five wounded men get to safety while
under mortar and machine gun fire. In another instance he treated
and carried to safety four wounded comrades, dodging grenades all
the while. Doss was wounded himself during a night attack, sus-
taining a leg injury from a grenade. After waiting five hours to
be rescued, he gave up his stretcher to another soldier, and was
consequently hit in his arm by a shell. He then fashioned his own
splint and crawled three hundred yards to the aid station. PFC
Desmond T. Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive
the Medal of Honor, presented to him by President Harry S. Truman
during ceremonies at the White House on October 12, 1945. This
is the nation's highest wartime honor.
Our attitudes towards and our treatment of conscientious
objectors have not been acceptable. When we consider the number
of men deferred from military service or any service to their
country, one wonders why our government has been so slow to ac-
cept the position of conscientious objector. Their numbers over
the years do not begin to compare with draft dodgers throughout
the history of our country.
We have been using the words conscience and conscientious
all through this paper. Just what is conscience?
Conscience is that faculty which tells us what is right or
wrong. This faculty has to be formed and informed. Family, society
and religion all contribute to the forming of a right conscience.
Formation of conscience and the ability to make right judgments de-
mands study, openness and a good teacher.
Christians from the earliest centuries were informed to be
non- violent. Saint Justin the Martyr said, "We who formerly murder-
ed one another, now not only do not make war upon our enemies, that
we may not lie or deceive our judge, but we gladly die confessing
In the Fifth Century when Christianity was linked with
civil authority, questions about warfare were being asked: "What
would you do if someone tried to kill your family or attack your
nation unjustly?" The barbaric invasion confronted Christians
with this question.
Saint Augustine continued to ask and answer the question
of war with the "just-war" principles and offered the following:
A just war could be conducted when these conditions were met --
1) the intention must be to restore peace; 2) only a legitimate
authority can declare war; 3) the conduct of the war must be
just; and 4) monks and clerics may not engage in war.
Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century offered his views
on the "just-war" theory: 1) it must be waged by a public authority
for the common good; 2) a just cause is required; 3) it must be
fought with right intentions; and 4) harm done by war must not exceed
the good that comes from it.
These principles as taught by the Catholic Church gave in-
dividuals and nations principles by which they could form their
consciences. Catholic and Christian nations waged war because
they thought it was for a just cause. Popes as well as saints
raised armies for the Crusades to win back the Holy Places.
Christian men fought for their countries because they be-
lieved that their countries had a just and good cause for waging
war. In conscience they believed what they were doing was right.
The decision of their countries helped to form their consciences.
Catholic teaching remained the same through the centuries.
Individuals were expected to serve their countries and could not
claim to be conscientious objectors to war. In the early '60s,
thinking on this matter began to change. The Second Vatican
Council endorsed laws that "make provision for the care of those
who for reason of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided, how-
ever, that they accept some other form of service to the human
In 1968 the Catholic Bishops of America in their Pastoral
Letter referred to war as one of the issues "which present and
future generations will be less willing to leave entirely to the
normal political and bureaucratic processes of national decision-
making." The Bishops concluded with the hope that in the all-
important matter of peace and war, all people would follow their
consciences. This means that every individual has a responsibility
to inform his or her conscience through study, consultation and
The Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Con-
ference in 1980 again stated that individuals had a responsibility
to inform their consciences. "The State has a right to call citizens
to acts of legitimate defense and that citizens have a duty to con-
tribute to the common good of society, including the defense of
society." They continued, "However, the State's decision to use
force should always be morally scrutinized by citizens asked to
support the decision or to participate in any way." 8 Individuals
were urged to come to some judgment about the government's decision
before either supporting it or rejecting it. This is a clear de-
parture from the past when decisions of the government enjoyed the
presumption of truth and justice.
The Pastoral Letter of the United States Bishops, The
Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response , dated May 1983,
stated: "A dominate characteristic of the Second Vatican Council's
evolution of modern warfare was the stress it placed on the require-
ment for proper formation of conscience. Moral principles are ef-
fective restraints on power only when policies reflect them and
individuals practice them. The relationship of the authority and the
conscience of the individual on matters of war and peace take a new
urgency in the face of the destructive nature of modern war." 9
Even though we have been using the term "conscientious ob-
jector" in a general manner, there are two classifications of con-
scientious objectors. One type of objector is the registrant who
believes that it is wrong to participate in any military service and
is classified 1-0. He is placed in civilian public service work for
two years. The second type of conscientious objector is willing to
serve in the military forces but his services will be of a noncombatant
and he will be classified 1-A-O. This service would be in the
medical department or any other service that did not require the
use of arms.
These classifications would be given to an individual by
the local draft board. The person would submit his request for such
a status together with the necessary form for conscientious objectors
(SSS Form 150) . There are six questions on the form which give the
person the opportunity to express his beliefs which would be the
basis for the claim. These include how the person acquired these
beliefs, how these beliefs affect the way he lives, and the type of
work he does or plans to do. The Board then would pass judgment and
approve or disapprove the request.
At the present time there is no allowance for selective con-
scientious objector. In March 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that
"persons who object solely to participation in a particular war" are
rightfully excluded from recognition as conscientious objectors.
Even though the highest court in our land has judged in this
manner, my personal reflections along with my pastoral and military
experience dictate otherwise. I am supported in this opinion by
statements of the Administrative Board of the United States Catholic
These official Church spokespersons gave their support not
only to pacifists who are opposed to war in any form, but also gave
their support to those whose reasons of conscience are more per-
sonal and specific. They recommended that the Selective Service
Act should make it possible although not easy for a selective
conscientious objector to refuse without fear of imprisonment or
loss of citizenship to serve in a war which they judge to be un-
just. They stated "that the right of a selective conscientious
objector is a moral conclusion which can be validly derived from
the classical moral teaching of the 'just-war' theory." 10 They
also added that they would welcome a dialogue with legislators,
lawyers and other religious leaders about how to make this moral
position have a secure legal status. They insist upon respect
for and legislative protection of the rights of both classes of
Law, Political Aspect and Selective Conscientious Objectors
The question of the selective conscientious objector will
become a very heated issue if the draft is reinstated. A bi-
partisan panel of fifty-three prominent Americans in 1980 issued a
report questioning the all-volunteer force. The report showed the
current level of active duty personnel to be inadequate to respond
to threats in the United States' areas of interest throughout the
world. It also indicated a "significant probability" that the
United States will be forced to resume a military draft by the
middle of the 1980s. The panel recommended that the President
should prepare for the probability of a draft and should set up a
Presidential Commission to work with the Selective Service in de-
signing a model draft. With present United States military com-
mitments in Lebanon and Egypt, and possible commitments in Central
America, we are stretching our forces too thin. If the number of
our forces comes into question, can the probability of a draft be
When an individual appeals for the status of selective
conscientious objector, immediately he is judged to be opposing
the war for political reasons. Naturally the political community
refuses to accept the selective conscientious objector for political
reasons. The presumption stands for the community's decision to
begin a war. John Courtney Murray, SJ, in an article, "War and
Conscience," presents the rights of the nation to defend itself.
The conflict arises between the right of the individual conscience
and the right of the nation. He believes a person should be able to
state his case before a competent panel of judges. The difficult
decision to be made is what is moral opposition to war and what is
Conscientious objectors are considered outside the political
arena. They have divorced themselves from politics by saying that
all wars and participation in them are to be avoided. Selective con-
scientious objectors are considered as political objectors and
not moral. They are considered to be committing acts of civil
disobedience by opposing a particular war. Those who oppose
selective conscientious objectors say that the fabric of our
government would be ruined if it approved the existence of such
a status. If approved, they say there would be a rush of people
to qualify for non-payment of taxes, for a disregard of Civil
Rights Laws and any law of the land that an individual did not
want to observe, because in conscience they believed it was wrong.
However, I believe consideration of the dissent by the few who
would apply for selective conscientious objector status would be
good for our government, which has survived and thrived because of
the individual people questioning and holding our country responsible
for its actions.
In a recent newspaper article, there is a reference to
Colonel Harry Summers, Jr., teacher at the Army War College in Car-
lisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and author of On Strategy , a book that
explains why we lost the War in Vietnam. He says, "No government
should commit troops to battle without first obtaining solid public
support." He continues, "If the majority of the American people
don't want their armed forces to fight in Central America, they we
shouldn't fight there." This support he is looking for certainly is
political and would put the country behind the war effort. The fact
that the government should seek such support opens up the govern-
ment's decisions to discussion of agreement and disagreement, with-
out those disagreeing being considered unpatriotic. If such would
happen, the next logical step would be to allow individuals not to
support the war because of conscience and not for political reasons.
Colonel Summers is saying that a majority of citizens must be sup-
portive of committing armed forces for the war to be successful.
What he doesn't say explicitly is that we do not need everyone to be
politically supportive of the war for it to be a success. The fabric
of the government will not be torn apart if we allow opposing view-
points. Those who would oppose a war because of conscience would be
very insignificant in comparison to those who would in conscience
support the war. Nevertheless, such opposition would not hinder the
war effort if the majority supported it both politically and in con-
Responsibility of Ministers
Civilian ministers of religion, reserve and national guard
chaplains should be available to our young men for counseling con-
cerning the registration for a draft. Young men should be instructed
about their duties to their country and about the responsibility to
develop personal conscience. I believe as ministers we must present
all the pertinent information to our young people so that they can
form their own consciences. We must not favor one position over
another. A good resource is the information available from
NISBCO (National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious
Objectors). Hopefully our Congress will recognize the value
there is in accepting these positions and the strength we will
gain as a nation.
We as a nation have come a long way in our respect for the
individual conscience as it comes in conflict with the common
good or responsibility to the nation. We have seen the teaching
of the American Catholic Church develop and witnessed its change
of attitude toward individual participation in war. We have seen
the burdens placed on these individuals throughout our history and
have been appalled at the ease with which others have been deferred
or exempted. We must continue to pressure Congress to consider
these arguments for the selective conscientious objector. If we
truly believe in the justice that we teach and preach, there is no
"The Medal of Honor Winner Who Refused to Fight," Parade
Magazine, The Chicago Sun-Times , (August 14, 1983), p. 3.
Joseph J. Fahey, Peace, War and the Christian Conscience ,
(New York: The Christophers Publication, 1982), p. 2.
Ibid; p. 3.
4 Ibid; p. 3.
5 Ibid; p. 5.
Austin Flannery, O.P. (ed.), Vatican Council II , (College-
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National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Human Life in Our
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United States Catholic Conference Administrative Board,
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National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of
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National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Human Life in Our
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John Courtney Murray, S.J., "War and Conscience," Review
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